Civic Engagement and Political Leadership among Women
Just decades ago American women and girls suffered from grave inequity access to education and workplace. This narrative has shifted a lot thanks to tireless advocacy and activism of many people. Now, women have achieved parity or near parity in many sectors and girls are ahead of boys in many academic subjects and college completion rates.
Girls and young women are also committed civic actors and are ahead of their male counterparts on many indicators of civic engagement, including volunteering, membership in community associations, and voting. Female college students are far more likely to spend large number of hours on volunteer service, take service learning courses, and value helping others in need more strongly than male students. After college, women are overrepresented in intensive service programs like AmeriCorps and Teach for America. The National Assessment of Educational Progress Civics test results indicate that girls perform as well as, if not better than, boys on civic knowledge tests.
Yet research by the Center for American Women and Politics and others makes it clear that women are grossly underrepresented among our elected officials. We also find the same pattern of high achievement and underrepresentation in leadership in business, law, and higher education. On one hand, we have girls and women who are high civic achievers and yet, young girls are still growing up seeing few faces like theirs among our leaders today.
Our new fact sheet summarizes past research and new CIRCLE findings related to civic and political engagement among girls and women. We first identify gaps that explain gender disparities in leadership and then suggest practices that may be especially relevant for promoting political leadership among girls and women.
We identify five relevant gaps that may contribute to the gender leadership gap:
1. Interest Gap: Young women are much less interested in become engaged through politics than men. The gender gap in discussion of political issues is actually expanding.
2. Confidence Gap: Women are far less likely to claim personal characteristics such leadership and public speaking skills, competitiveness, social skills and popularity, all of which are the very qualities we want in our political leaders. The gender gaps have not narrowed since the 1960s.
3. Expectations Gap: Young college women are less likely to have ever been encouraged to run for an political office by pretty much everyone in their lives, including parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, and even friends. Interestingly, women are just as likely to be encouraged to run for student government positions as men. In a way, women are expected to lead to a certain level, but not at a highest level.
4. Race and Class Gaps: Women of color and women who are socioeconomically disadvantaged are left far behind their White and economically advantaged counterparts in most indicators of civic participation. Ignoring these race and class gaps can mask important challenges we have. When we simply compare genders without considering their racial backgrounds, there are little gender differences in most of the comparisons.
5. Assessment Gap: We currently rely on standardized tests for assessment of civic competency in K-12 grades but standardized tests are designed to measure factual knowledge, but not civic motivation or leadership and collaboration skills. Thus, simply increasing the amount of testing and holding schools accountable for civic learning, based solely on civics test is not likely to help us understand why there is gender leadership gap or measure the progress we make to close it.
Implications and Promoting Best Practices
The fact sheet also suggests implications from the data:
- Strategies to reduce the gender gap in political leadership should begin to reach girls before college age.
- Since young women do participate in community work, they need instrumental support, encouragement, and mentoring to become political leaders who can change laws, policies, or systems to benefit more people.
- More research is needed on women and girls’ civic engagement, such as how girls and boys perceive civics instruction in early grades and whether and how much gender-specific instruction (e.g., learning about female political leaders) and programs (e.g., Girl Scouts) affect girls’ motivation, perceived ability, and desire to pursue careers as elected officials.
- Research and practice should continue to focus on the large race and class disparities among women in both civic engagement and political representation.
A Future Agenda
Ten years ago, The Civic Mission of Schools challenged k-12 institutions to better prepare students and identified six promising practices, and our colleagues have made much progress then, both in understanding what works, and in creating innovative ways to acquire civic knowledge, skills and dispositions. Recently, a useful report from Education Commission of the States described various practices of New Civics.
In this newer framing of civics, students not only gain knowledge about the structure and function of the government and how laws are made from textbook, they can also approach these important topics using alternative methods, such as community-based projects, games, and live simulations.
Students are also known to develop into civically and politically engaged young adults when they discuss current events, particularly when issues are relevant to young people, and even controversial. Through these occasions, students can not only learn about issues but also practice how to disagree, argue their points, and compromise at times.
Leaders of civic learning from all sectors are calling for renewed focus on civic learning in K-12 schools, colleges and universities, and in the communities. A Crucible Moment, a landmark report by Department of Education and Association for American Colleges and Universities calls on colleges and universities to reclaim the civic mission of colleges and universities, and challenge us to expand our traditional concept of college-level civic education to include far more than civic knowledge, but include self-understanding, readiness for action, and understanding of diverse context. The U.S. Department of Education shows strong commitment to civic learning for young people of all backgrounds by laying out a roadmap for action in a recent report. While it is critical that we educate all young people to become civically and politically engaged, we must continue to address the between- and within-gender gaps, so that American men and women of all backgrounds have equal voice in our political leadership in the future. Our findings make it clear that we have much to improve.